For every hundred painted thangkas, there’s maybe one appliqué thangka.
— Valrae Reynolds, author and curator
For us, painting and sculpture are the finest forms of art, but for Tibetans, appliqué and
embroidery are an even higher art.
— Glenn Mullin, Tibetologist, writer, translator
What led an American woman to learn a sacred Tibetan art so rare that many Tibetans have never even seen it?
And what can this art teach us about our own journey to awakening?
I am finally writing a book about Tibetan appliqué and my unexpected quest to master this sacred art. Part art book, part memoir. A first-draft snippet from the memoir part follows. I’d love your help in making it as fascinating and beneficial as it can be. Please read with gentle curiosity, then email me your comments and questions.
Thanks in advance!
I first saw His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1979 when I was in college and he was making his first visit to the US. I don’t think I knew who he was. I don’t know if anyone around me did either.
Over in India and Nepal, western hippies and students had discovered the Tibetans the decade before. They’d traveled overland, by bus, heading east from Europe. The Hippie Trail was a 20th century silk road through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan (or alternately through Syria, Jordan, and Iraq). Rather than commerce, these modern explorers were trading in experience, discovering entirely new ways of being. Upon reaching India, some had taken vows to become monks. Many were attending teachings, doing retreats, studying Tibetan with lamas.
But I didn’t know that yet. I only found out years later after taking my own journey, by air, in the late 1980s, when travel was still rough and uncommon but was more accessible than before (largely due to the Lonely Planet guidebooks, the bible of the backpack traveler, which had been created by a couple of those early Hippie Trail overlanders).
I and my classmates had been in utero when the Chinese occupation overtook Lhasa and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee his country, followed by 100,000 of his compatriots. By 1979, His Holiness and the Tibetan refugees had been resettled in India and Nepal for 20 years. A generation of Tibetan children had been born in exile. Inside Tibet, while we UCSC students were children, Tibetans had suffered religious repression, nomad collectivization, and starvation and had endured the Cultural Revolution with their Chinese occupiers. Thousands of monasteries had been destroyed and tens of thousands of monks and nuns killed. The people had been forced to denounce the Dalai Lama, renounce their vows, and even to kill and shame one another.
We students at the University of California, Santa Cruz had been raised in prosperous cities and suburbs in a period of free expression, empowerment, abundance, and experimentation. UCSC was at the cutting edge of that experimentation, exploring new modes of education, evaluation, and fields of study.
Egalitarian relationships were promoted and students were on a first-name basis with professors. Idyllic redwood forests, rolling hills, and pastures were our classrooms, looking out over a spectacular bay and some of the best surfing in California.
Eastern spirituality had entered our awareness from an early age and was an ingredient in the human potential milieu in which we immersed ourselves. The Esalen Institute was just down the road with its mind-expanding ideas and beautiful hot tubs, open to the public after midnight, clothing discouraged. Most of our soaks were in simpler surroundings, nearby in the redwood clad hills of the Santa Cruz mountains.
We were insatiably curious and at least some of us were oriented toward growth in every aspect of our lives. So when we saw the flyers announcing that a Tibetan holy man was coming to speak on the East Field, we flocked to see him with the same enthusiasm we would have taken to a Grateful Dead concert or a walk in the woods on magic mushrooms or a vision quest.
This was His Holiness’ first visit to the United States. He was not greeted by statesmen but was welcomed to university campuses around the country. I have no idea how our small, nonconformist, liberal arts college got on the itinerary. And I don’t remember what His Holiness talked about that day (but there’s a recording and I will add something from it!) or what my first impression was. He spoke in Tibetan, translated into English by an interpreter, though his English was already remarkably good.
It was a sunny day, and I knew I was in the right place. Little did I know where that “place” really was and that a seed planted there would grow into a path.
I’m writing a book and I’d like your help in making it as fascinating and useful as possible. You’ve just read a draft snippet. Your loving feedback will help me refine it. Please email me your comments and questions. Let me know what touched you and what lost you.
With gratitude overflowing,
FIBER ART EXHIBITION at the FRESNO ART MUSEUM
May 20 to August 28, 2016
Thursday to Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm
2233 North First Street, Fresno, CA 93703
Click here for directions, visitor information, hours, and admission.
FIBER ART MASTER WORKS at the FRESNO ART MUSEUM
May 20 to August 28, 2016
Thursday to Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm
2233 North First Street, Fresno, CA 93703
Click here for directions, visitor information, hours, and admission.
I’m offering two very special framed prints of my Big Buddha thangka at 50% off. These two prints feature my most elaborate thangka, the one His Holiness the Dalai Lama praised, surrounded by a brocade-covered mat. Update: The blue one has sold. The larger, gold one is still available.)
Inside each frame, below the print, I’ve hand-stitched a silk flower that recalls the original work.
Professionally matted and framed, these are two truly fine and beautiful pieces.
They were originally priced at $1495 for the one in blue brocade (SOLD) and $1995 for the one in gold brocade (29″ x 39″, STILL AVAILABLE). They are now
$747 and $997, respectively. They will make a stunning addition to any room or altar.
Send me an email if you’d like to come to the studio to see them or if you know you want one for your home.
Thangka paintings are Tibet’s most plentiful and portable form of sacred art. Less known and rarely seen are the highly prized appliqué thangkas. In fact, when I first discovered them in 1992 and expressed an interest in learning to make them, few Tibetans in Dharamsala had ever seen one.
A thangka is a two-dimensional, rollable form of art—a scroll—illustrated with images of spiritual masters, enlightened beings, role models, and symbols of our Buddha nature. In most thangkas, the picture is painted on cotton canvas and then framed in brocade fabric. In some thangkas, however, not only the frame but the picture itself is constructed from fabric.
The earliest known textile thangkas were 13th-century embroideries and tapestries produced in China on the basis of Tibetan paintings. Within a century or two, thangkas of hand-stitched silk appliqué were being created inside Tibet. No one knows for sure how this artistic evolution occurred, but it was undoubtedly an outgrowth of complex relationships among the nations of central and eastern Asia in the first half of the second millennium.
Over the centuries, power in this area changed hands many times. At times, the Mongols held sway over the whole region, while in other periods, the Chinese or Manchu had control. And from 1038–1227, the Tangut empire was an important force in what is today northwest China. Often, the nation which held temporal power looked to Tibetan lamas for spiritual guidance.
Chinese silk played an important role in managing and expressing these relationships. Silk came into Tibet as imperial tribute and commercial trade from at least as early as the Tang dynasty (618–907) and perhaps much earlier. A Sino-Tibetan treaty from 760 records an annual tribute of fifty thousand “pieces” of silk from the Chinese emperor to the Tibetan court at Lhasa (Reynolds 1995, 146).
The only indigenous weaving materials in Tibet were wool and yak hair. Silk was significantly more precious. In fact, silk was used as a currency. The price of a horse, for example, is recorded as having been anywhere from twenty to forty bolts of silk, depending on the quality of the horse and the time period (Reynolds 1995, 146 and 1997, 188).
In an article on patronage and religious practice in China and Tibet, Valrae Reynolds (former curator of Asian art at the Newark Museum and one of the few people to have written about Tibetan appliqué) describes the flourishing of artistic activity from the 11th to 13th centuries, as religious teachers founded monasteries with the support of “princely” families. From documents of this period, it emerges that “one of the popular ways to gain religious merit was to donate fine silk for the use of an esteemed teacher of a Buddhist monastery” (Reynolds 1997, 189). In this way—through tribute, commerce, and investment—silk satins, damasks, and brocades began to fill the treasuries of Tibet.
When the Mongols took over, consolidating control of China after 1279, they adopted many aspects of the destroyed Tangut court’s religious connection with Tibet, giving lamas great power over religious and cultural affairs and promoting artistic ventures that incorporated Tibetan Buddhist themes and styles. The use of silk to create sacred art grew out of these fluctuating Tangut-Mongol-Tibetan-Chinese interconnections.
It was during this period that textile copies of Tibetan paintings began to be produced in China, using Chinese techniques of weaving and embroidery. Reynolds notes that these silken images held “greater cachet than the paintings they were copied from” (Reynolds 1995, 147).
Art historian Michael Henss explains that these early “pictorial embroideries, tapestries, and brocades fall in between established art historical domains in two ways: they cannot be classified as paintings, nor are they textiles in the usual sense; Chinese by technique and origin, but Tibetan by subject and composition, [they were] presented by the imperial court to Tibetan religious officials and visitors, to their monastic enclaves in China and monasteries in Tibet . . .” (Henss 1997, 206). Henss also writes: “From the historical background, the regular flow of Tibetan art to China and Chinese art to Tibet between the late thirteenth and the late fifteenth centuries seems still to be underestimated” (Henss 1997, 214).
At some point, probably in the 14th century, the Tibetans were sufficiently inspired by the Chinese textile interpretations of their paintings to begin creating their own original textile masterpieces. To do so, they employed indigenous appliqué techniques, which were already being used to embellish ritual dance costumes, saddle blankets, and throne covers and to decorate the colorful tents and awnings that dotted the landscape for festivals and picnics. In collaboration with Tibet’s greatthangka painters, the country’s finest tailors were able to adapt these techniques to the more delicate and sacred imagery of thangkas.
Textual records indicate that several giant appliqué thangkas were made in the early 15th century at Gyantse monastery in Tibet (Henss 1997, 214). And in 1468, the great thangka painter Menla Dhondup was commissioned by the first Dalai Lama to create a giant silk image of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, for display on the nine-story thangka wall of Tashilhunpo monastery. The wall was specially built for the occasional display of giant thangkas before crowds of devotees.
Appliqué thangka production increased in the 16th century and spread throughout the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. Eventually, appliqué thangkas were being produced not only in Tibet itself, but also in the neighboring countries of Mongolia, Bhutan, and Ladakh.
Many of Tibet’s appliqué thangkas were destroyed during the 1950s and ‘60s, along with so many monasteries, texts, and cultural assets. For a few decades, this art form became largely dormant as Tibetans re-established themselves in exile and religion was suppressed within Tibet. In recent years, however, a thriving production has re-emerged among the exile community in India and Nepal, and some large appliqué thangkas have also been made within Tibet itself, including the giant Tsurphu thangka project managed by Terris and Leslie Nguyen Temple.
The prestige of fabric thangkas that began with Chinese textiles based on Tibetan paintings continues today with the uniquely Tibetan appliqué form. In the 2008 documentary Creating Buddhas: the Making and Meaning of Fabric Thangkas, Tibetologist Glenn Mullin notes, “For us, painting and sculpture are the two finest forms of art, but for Tibetans appliqué and embroidery are an even higher art.” Valrae Reynolds concurs by saying, “It’s kind of counterintuitive to the Western idea where painting and sculpture is high art and something made out of textile is craft. But in the Tibetan sense, an appliquéd thangka is the most wonderful, highest thing that you can create.”
As an American woman, privileged to have learned this ancient, interculturally generated textile tradition from Tibetans in India, I am honored to carry it forward into the 21st century and, with the support of my Tibetan teachers and colleagues, to expand its reach into the Western world.
Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo is a textile artist, teacher, and caretaker of the sacred Tibetan tradition of silk appliqué thangka. Trained by two of the finest living masters of this rare art form, she stitches pieces of silk into fabric mosaics that bring the transformative figures of Buddhist meditation to life. Encouraged by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to make this art relevant across religions and cultures, Leslie created the Stitching Buddhas Virtual Apprentice Program to help women around the world integrate their spiritual and creative paths. She is a member of the Dakini As Art Collective and author of the forthcoming book, Threads of Awakening: the Sacred Power of Tibetan Textile Art.
Henss, Michael. 1997. “The Woven Image: Tibeto-Chinese Textile Thangkas of the Yuan and Early Ming Dynasties.” In Chinese and Central Asian Textiles: Selected articles from Orientations 1983-1997, 206–19. Hong Kong: Orientations Magazine Ltd.
Reynolds, Valrae. 1995. “The Silk Road: From China to Tibet – and Back.” In Chinese and Central Asian Textiles: Selected articles from Orientations 1983-1997, 146–53. Hong Kong: Orientations Magazine Ltd.
———. 1997. “Buddhist Silk Textiles: Evidence for Patronage and Ritual Practice in China and Tibet.” In Chinese and Central Asian Textiles: Selected articles from Orientations 1983-1997, 188–99. Hong Kong: Orientations Magazine Ltd.
Creating Buddhas: the Making and Meaning of Fabric Thangkas. 2008. DVD, directed by Isadora Gabrielle Leidenfrost. Madison, WI: Soulful Media.
As a maker of appliqué thangkas and other artworks based on Tibetan appliqué, I’m often asked, “What exactly IS a thangka?”
Thangka is a Tibetan term for one of Tibet’s most plentiful and portable forms of sacred art. Some say the word thangka means “something that rolls up,” while others hypothesize that the word derives from thang-yig, which means “written record.” In this view, a thangka could be considered a pictorial or graphic record. Regardless of the etymology, the word “thangka” refers to a two-dimensional, rollable form of art—a scroll—illustrated with images of spiritual masters, teachers, enlightened beings, role models, and symbols of our buddha nature.
The idealized figures depicted on thangkas can be viewed in at least three different ways:
Any of these views can be true, depending on which lens you look through. Visualization practices can be used to rehearse and uncover the second and third views as well as to pay homage and receive blessings in the first view.
However they’re regarded, the powerful and inspiring figures pictured on thangkas carry enormous power to uplift and transform viewers’ minds. But a thangka is more than just this inspiring picture. It is a composite object composed of a picture, a soft frame, and other elements which aid and enhance its display.
Numerous books and articles discuss Tibetan iconography and tell stories of the sacred figures contained in thangkas. But few talk about the thangka as a physical object created by artists and craftspeople and used by ordinary people in their homes and temples.
The physical object called thangka has the following key characteristics:
The picture part of most thangkas is painted (traditionally with mineral pigments but nowadays often with acrylic colors) on cotton canvas. Throughout the painting process, this canvas is stretched on a rigid wooden frame. When the painting is finished, the artist cuts the painted canvas free from its rigid stretcher and takes it to a specialized tailor who will mount it in brocade and assemble it in an integrated display-store-and-transport package.
In some thangkas, not only the frame but the picture itself is constructed from fabric. These rare and precious thangkas are constructed from pieces of silk stitched together and embellished with embroidery and beads. This uniquely Tibetan textile art (usually called appliqué for lack of a better word) is the thangka tradition I studied.
The fabric mountings of early thangkas were often very simple. Rather than a rectangular frame that fully surrounds the picture, some were simple strips of blue cloth sewn along the upper and lower edges of the painting. The sides of the painting were left alone. In recent centuries, however, fabric frames have become more substantial and are usually made with multiple strips of multicolored brocade that surround the painting on all sides.
The strips that surround the picture most closely on all sides are called the “rainbow.” This reminds us that the beings depicted in the picture are beings of light, radiating non-stop goodness to us all. Most commonly, the innermost strip is red, the next strip (or the frame itself) is yellow or golden, and the outermost color (if included) is blue.
Sometimes, a rectangular piece of contrasting brocade, referred to as a door, is incorporated into a wide rectangle of brocade at the bottom of the frame, below the painting. There is a slat along the top edge of the fabric frame that spreads the thangka flat against the wall as it hangs. Narrow fabric strips or strings attached to this top edge serve the dual purpose of suspending the completed thangka from a hook for display and keeping it securely rolled while storing and carrying.
A rod or dowel is inserted in a sleeve along the bottom edge of the fabric frame to provide rigidity and weight so that the entire thangka—picture and frame—will hang smoothly. It also serves as the axis around which the thangka is rolled for storage and transport.
Rolling a thangka is a two-person job: one person holds the upper slat keeping the thangka taut as the second person holds the lower dowel and rolls the thangka around it. If you find yourself rolling a thangka, take care to hold your hands near the ends of the dowel so that you’re squeezing the brocade border, rather than the picture itself. Also take care to wrap the securing strips loosely around the brocade border so they don’t put pressure the picture itself.
Two additional features are usually incorporated into the thangka’s framing assembly: a veil (or drape) and ribbons. In Tibetan, the veil is called a “face-cover.” It is made of a soft, flowing silk fabric, much thinner than the heavy brocade of the frame. One end of the veil is attached at the upper edge of the frame, along the wooden slat. From there, it flows down to cover the entire face of the thangka. When the veil is lowered, it protects unauthorized eyes from viewing the image.
For display, this veil is gathered and tucked under a string that runs along the front of the upper slat. (Don’t use this string to hang the thangka. It’s only designed to hold the weight of the veil! See previous How to Hang a Thangka blog post for details.) Tucked up, the veil creates a decorative flourish above the picture, giving it a celebratory and honored look. It’s like arranging flowers and putting on our best clothes for a respected guest. For detailed instructions on how to arrange the thangka veil, visit my earlier blog post on the subject.
The ribbons can hang down in front of the thangka add to the celebration or they can be hidden behind. Known as “wind strips,” the ribbons were originally intended to hang in front of the painting only when the veil was lowered – they prevented the veil from blowing in the wind and thus revealing the image unintentionally.
This display-transport-storage integration has proved functional over centuries in the Tibetan monastic and semi-nomadic context, and is worthy of great admiration. In terms of conservation, however, the traditional package and its handling pose challenges for the long-term preservation of artworks. Though the upper slat and the lower rod do keep the thangka from bending and wrinkling when rolled, paintings are nonetheless stressed and gradually degraded with repeated rolling and unrolling. Flat methods of framing and storage are kinder to the artwork and should be considered in contexts where preservation is considered important.